Archives and Research

Who's Minding the Sources? Recommendations from the Historical Documents Study

Ann D. Gordon, November 1992

A report recently released by the Historical Documents Study urges historians to accept a larger share of responsibility for the historical record and work closely with professionals concerned with preserving evidence. Irrevocable decisions about the historical record are made all the time. Historians should take part in those decisions, planning how to protect sources already in repositories and make them useful and also how to ensure that the present and future are documented.

Using the Nation's Documentary Heritage reports the results of an eighteen-month study of current demand for historical sources. Most of its recommendations about improving access to and use of historical sources are addressed to professions and institutions on which historians depend—archivists, bibliographers, cataloguers, editors, funding agencies, historical societies, librarians, and publishers. Their intent is to bring practices of custodians and distributors of historical sources more into line with the needs of researchers.

In a cooperative venture between the American Council of Learned Societies and the National Historical Publications and Records Commission (NHPRC), the Historical Documents Study surveyed 1,394 people selected at random from the memberships of five associations with different requirements and expectations about historical evidence: the American Association for State and Local History, the American Society for Legal History, the National Council on Public History, the National Genealogical Society, and the Organization of American Historians. From a sample that consisted of students (11 percent), researchers pursuing an avocation (43 percent), and researchers whose occupations required research (45 percent), the survey gathered information about how respondents learned the craft of historical research, what questions they had sought to answer in a recent project, how they identified pertinent evidence, how they gained access to the sources they needed, and what obstacles interfered with their research.

The study found lively interest in and strong demand for access to sources on the past. Average citizens and professionals alike described recent and ongoing need for sources, and despite dissimilar backgrounds, they encountered similar obstacles in their quests for evidence. Though distinct frames of reference on history and evidence distinguish researchers, and even though they rely on the sources in different proportions and select different parts of the whole, their shared need for records of the past sends genealogists and historians, academics and volunteers, students and lawyers to the same sites and the same or similar records.

Data from the survey justify speaking of a community of interest among people using the historical record, and the recommendations address common needs. Many of them follow from two central observations. First, people today start complex research at every kind of library imaginable, big and small—libraries categorized as local public, community college, historical society, state, and law, as well as major research. Second, researchers find their inability to travel to sources to be the single greatest obstacle to their use of sources. These observations, on the one hand, underscore the importance of microform, published sources, interlibrary loan networks, descriptive databases, and on-line catalogues, and argue for support to extend and perfect these systems of distribution. On the other hand, they challenge publishers, archivists, funding agencies, and others to adjust their assumptions about who needs sources. Researchers are neither concentrated in centers of learning nor funded for leisurely research journeys. Contending with realities of time, money, and distance, they place a premium on efficient, decentralized access to sources.

Historians rarely find occasion or leverage to make the point about sources that use is the ultimate quality control and that the preeminent critics are users. At the same time they do not routinely acknowledge how dependent they can become with respect to what sources are available and how sources are presented for use. By and large, we take for granted the survival of evidence, evaluate its preservation and availability by our own immediate success, and adapt, however awkwardly, to the reference systems we find. As the professional gap widens between historians and archivists or any other group charged with care of sources, historians' illusion of self-sufficiency gets riskier.

Historians cannot take for granted that sources will be available in the details or forms they desire. Confrontations over the security classification of government documents should remind even those historians without need for the documents in question that the historical record does not just appear in desired forms but requires vigilance, political skill, and financial commitment. On a scale of lesser irritation, researchers experience powerless frustration when confounded by categories that defy the historical mind, from the rigidities of subject classification defined by the Library of Congress to the murkiness of the line differentiating a newspaper from a periodical. Administrative priorities and systems of logic defined by professions other than historians can obstruct research to varying degrees.

Any number of examples might be chosen to map out the complex universe of preserving and disseminating sources that filters, sometimes mangles, often hides, information from researchers. Microfilm is a good example both because historians take its ubiquity for granted and because the problems with accessing sources in this format are so transparent. What stands between historians and sources on microfilm are not, however, more pronounced than any other case that could be used for illustration.

Few researchers profess fondness for working with microfilm, but fewer still can get along without it. In its survey, the Historical Documents Study found that only seven percent of respondents did not consult sources on microfilm. Among historians, the sources most commonly used in this format were periodicals and newspapers, manuscripts, and government documents other than census schedules or judicial records. For all the strained eyes, cramped necks, and stiff backs attributable to reading microfilm, the medium appeals to researchers because sources that would otherwise remain out of reach become accessible through inexpensive duplication and loans.

Policies and standards for microfilming sources are not routinely set with users in mind. Much filming done by governments, libraries, and archives has preservation as its primary objective, not dissemination of sources. What is perceived to merit preservation neither necessarily coincides with research value nor produces a coherent body of sources on microfilm. Occasionally the logic of preservation and research coincide, as in the case of the United States Newspaper Program, directed by the Library of Congress and the National Endowment for the Humanities, but the consultation and planning in that program is more the exception than the rule.

Preservation filming also does not necessarily result in making sources more accessible. It has been suggested that most film in existence may not be available for use off site; a single copy is held either for security or for local use. On this point researchers have begun to make an impact. The National Endowment for the Humanities now requires that a loan copy be made of any film supported with its grants, but the same is not true of the National Historical Publications and Records Commission, nor is it standard practice when films are funded locally.

An assessment of filming performed by archives of the various states concluded that "[o]fficials in many, if not most, states are failing to assure the adequacy of microfilm that is destined to serve as the security or replacement copy of valuable state and local records."1 This succinct warning, had it been circulated to researchers, should have alerted them to the dual problem of destroying original records after filming without adequate safeguards about the quality of the film. After five decades of microfilming, the physical integrity of the film itself has been chemically stabilized and improved, but human errors persist.

Researchers may resign themselves to poor workmanship in the production of microfilms without realizing that there are no national standards for proofreading the medium. Evidence is lean that archivists and librarians assign high priority to the costly task. The latest compilation of advice for planning microfilm programs lacks an index entry for proofreading. The handbook prepared by the Library of Congress about microfilming manuscripts qualifies its suggestion about checking every frame against originals with the phrase, "if feasible."2

The final obstacle (short of the horrors of microfilm readers) arises when films are either not described anywhere or described where no one knows to look. Rules for cataloguing microfilms defy common sense because no one has resolved conflicts between rival cataloguing standards devised for manuscripts, newspapers/periodicals, and books. Researchers need advanced knowledge about a film in order to guess if it exists as a librarian's "publication" or an archivist's "reproduction," because the film's point of origin and an implied purpose are the desiderata of cataloguing. Although an optimist has claimed that bibliographic control of microfilm "is leading steadily to the building of an accurate and widely accessible union list of preservation microforms," one need only dabble in the Research Libraries Information Network (RLIN) to find examples of inconsistent, incompatible, and incomprehensible entries for films and their guides.

From this one map of dependency, addressed in the Historical Documents Study's report, it should be evident that historians' needs are not perforce the starting points for systems developed to organize and distribute information. But while screaming all alone at the microfilm reader, the researcher perceives problems as individual irritations, not as evidence of flaws in the systems for putting researcher and film together. The problems do not often appear worthy of collective or professional action. Thus the gap widens between service and need.

Microfilm-related decisions make up a small slice of the policies set for the care and use of sources. Historians also have interests in the answers to current questions like these: Who is defining collection strategies in libraries and archives? Who is writing the retention schedules for public archives faced with a tidal wave of bureaucratic paper, some of which must be destroyed? How should resources be allocated when repositories want to correct past errors in their collection strategies to collect popular fiction once dismissed or removed from the stacks, for instance? Who is defining the national thesaurus of terms for subject entries to manuscript collections? What national standards will prevail as historical societies and museums catalogue material culture in electronic formats? The first sign of trouble in how these questions have been answered may seem a small one to the single researcher, but if historians are not helping to formulate answers, nothing can guarantee that the answers will meet current or future needs for research. Misjudgments or flawed perspectives in any one of these areas can impede historical research.

The report turns to the NHPRC to take the lead in imposing standards on its preservation and publication grants that will bring them into line with the needs of users to make some of the improvements needed. Though an insufficient solution, it is one proven route; there are precedents in this agency's past leadership to improve practices in documentary editing, publishing of historical sources, microfilms, and archival practice. At the same time the report recognizes that the NHPRC is constantly underfunded for the responsibilities assigned to it by Congress, and furthermore that most of the institutions that it can influence suffer from similar underfinancing. In other words, there are questions not only of practice and policy but of politics and budgets. A secure and well-used documentary heritage requires a public commitment to learning about the past. As the report says, "If a community came into being around common concern for the documentary heritage, new priorities and resources would be more likely to follow."


1. Sue E. Holbert, "Preface," in Linda James, Standing the Test of Time: Quality Assurance of State and Local Government Records Microfilming (St. Paul, 1986), v.

2. Nancy E. Gwinn, ed., Preservation Microfilming: A Guide for Librarians and Archivists (Chicago, 1987); Photoduplication Service, Library of Congress, Specifications for Microfilming Manuscripts (Washington, D.C., 1980).

—Ann Gordon is project director of the Historical Documents Study, and author of Using the Nation's Documentary Heritage.